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Sunday, June 11, 2017


5 stars out of 5

At my age - almost old enough to be a great-grandmother but young enough to be happy that I'm not - I won't pretend to be in a hurry to do much of anything. But ever since I was a farm kid watching a star-filled sky on a blanket in our back yard, I've wanted to know more about how it all came about. Astronomy was my favorite part of science class, and I never missed an episode of late astrophysicist Carl Sagan's Cosmos - nothing short of fascinating stuff, at least when it's presented in a way that's informative, entertaining and, most importantly, understandable to a totally nonscientific person like me.

Needless to say, I gravitated straight toward this book. And in fact, it's very easy read; in short, to-the-point (and footnoted) chapters, topics are addressed like dark matter, dark energy and black holes as well as how planets, galaxies and other cosmic "stuff" get found. Everything is presented in a down-to-earth (so to speak) and often humorous manner. And eye-opening? Check this: "In the beginning, nearly 14 billion years ago, all the space, all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence."


The author, an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and director of the Hayden Planetarium doesn't preach, but neither does he hesitate to tackle current hot buttons, such as those who think chemicals are the enemy of humans. Citing scientific evidence that suggests otherwise, he quips, "Personally, I am quite comfortable with chemicals, anywhere in the universe. My favorite stars, as well as my best friends, are made up of them."

If I got nothing else out of the book, it is that we humans take ourselves way too seriously in the overall scheme of things. The author keeps things in mind-boggling perspective: At a relatively early age, he reports, he learned that more bacteria live and work in one centimeter of his colon than the number of people who have ever existed in the world.

Here are a few other revelations (to me, at least):

*One pound of plutonium generates 10 million kilowatt-hours of heat energy - enough to power a human being for 11,000 years "if we ran on nuclear fuel instead of grocery food."

*Apparently, Sagan was on to something: Our galaxy contains more than 100 billion stars, and known universes have some 100 billion galaxies. 

*There are more molecules of water in an 8-ounce cup than there are cups of water in all the world's oceans. There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach.

*Einstein was a badass.

Say what? There's a story behind that last one, but you'll just have to read the book to find out what it is. And with that, I'll end my review with a favorite quote from the book:

"The power and beauty of physical laws is that they apply everywhere, whether or not you choose to believe in them."

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (W. W. Norton & Co., May 2017); 208 pp.

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